The Carpet Bagger's Journal — moving from NYC to Mississippi

August 6, 2011

Dixie Death — The Local Mom-and-Pop Cemetery and the Omnipresent Southern Dead

On the day of the primary elections, I met a man who was sitting under an umbrella, holding up a campaign sign.  He told me that Vicksburg, Mississippi‘s population has stayed stagnant since he moved here in the 1960s.

“It’s a dead town,” he said.

Meet the neighbors.

We were in the parking lot of the Elks Lodge, where my polling place was, and across from the parking lot was a warped metal fence with a rusty sign above the gate to enter the plot of land near us.  It said, “Zoellinger’s Cemetery.”  Even though the cemetery was unkempt, with grass growing like a head of hair on a hungover hooker,  with piles of dead branches in the corner, the community was using Zoellinger’s Cemetery, it seemed, to this day, with fresh graves next to ones so old the engraving on the tombstones was worn off.  The names of the dead were varied — not all kin to Zoellinger.

In the North, we think that death is something apart from us — we pay money to give it pomp.  In Manhattan, they cross a bridge to bury the dead in Queens — no new graves nearby.  Death is rendered hygienic.  It is given something a corrupt politician might call plausible deniability.

Not so down South.  Death is the next-door neighbor, an inevitability closer in fact than taxes, which might be evaded, a shadow stretched in gothic proportions over every aspect of the quotidian.

Zoellinger’s Cemetery is a mom-and-pop operation, no connection to any church.  It is century-old business at least, judging by the tombstones, but I suspect that the worn stones I mentioned before are an indication that the place has been used as a graveyard since before the Battle of Vicksburg, which changed everything here.

Of course, the churches around here have cemeteries, too, often enough — but it is not considered strange to bury the dead in the back yard, to use one’s neighbor’s home-overgrown cemetery instead of the church.

Elvis is out back by the pool.

That archetypical Southern man, Elvis Presley, is buried at home — exhumed, in fact, to place him at Graceland.  He’s out back by the kidney-shaped swimming pool.  You can see him if you stand on the diving board.  If you want to wave — go ahead.   Around  here, that wouldn’t be considered more than a minor eccentricity,  the cracking of a knuckle, the humming of a tune.  Death is like daily bread.  Forgive us our trespasses, even as we forgive those who trespass against us.  We’re all trespassers down here, walking on the land of the historically departed, the familial and the familiar wraiths who haunt both battlefield and supermarket.

There is no surprise at a new sighting of a ghost in Vicksburg and the surrounding area.  In fact, if you go to the old courthouse, now defunct, on at least one night a week, you can take a ghost tour of the old city.  Ghosts are part of the community at least as much as the living are.

Even events associated with the renewal of life — with the ceremonies of youth — have the vestiges of this death pall upon them.  When local couples get married, they often go to a mansion that burned down years ago and stand in the ruins between the columns for wedding pictures.  No one sees the irony or the malediction in this.  There are several memorials to the Confederate dead on the campus of Ole Miss, who were indeed numerous among those who had attended the institution in the 1850s and 1860s.  And yes, at the City College of New York, there is a memorial plaque to those students who went off and fought Franco during the Spanish Civil War (a more noble lost cause, to be sure), but students are not forever tapped on the shoulder by these phantoms in the way that the young are here.  It is not that they are consciously courting the dead.  Rather, it is that the dead are always there, like a quiet elderly relative at a family reunion, parked in front of the television in dementia, neither bothered nor bothersome.  The dead are as present to the young  Mississippians as are any distant relatives over the age of 65 — to be respected but largely ignored, except at moments like graduation and wedding days, when one might send a note in the hopes of receiving a gift.

And what gift does a good grandson receive from the Confederate dead and the relatives buried out in the backyard?  I admit this is unclear to me.  I suppose the one valuable gift is a sense of continuity, that the path of the generations remains intact.

There is a hymn that is popular down here about this.  The lyrics written in 1907 by Ada R. Habershon are as follows:

There are loved ones in the glory
Whose dear forms you often miss.
When you close your earthly story,
Will you join them in their bliss?
CHORUS:

Will the circle be unbroken
By and by, Lord, by and by?
There’s a better home awaiting
In the sky, Lord, in the sky
In the joyous days of childhood
Oft they told of wondrous love
Pointed to the dying Saviour;
Now they dwell with Him above.
(Chorus)
You remember songs of heaven
Which you sang with childish voice.
Do you love the hymns they taught you,
Or are songs of earth your choice?
(Chorus)
You can picture happy gath’rings
Round the fireside long ago,
And you think of tearful partings
When they left you here below.
(Chorus)
One by one their seats were emptied.
One by one they went away.
Now the family is parted.
Will it be complete one day?
This song asks a question that the practice of keeping the dead close by seems to answer.  If the dead are forever at hand, then those seats are never really empty, the family is never really parted.  The circle is already unbroken here, and even as we go to vote at the Elk’s lodge, we know that imminently the ephemera of this election will evaporate into the greater truth of Vicksburg, that the dead outnumber the living — until the rapture raises them without their guns, their sabres, their cigarettes, their broken bottles of Mad Dog 40/40, and the defeats of this world will never again matter to any of us.  Nothing is extinguished, even now.
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May 17, 2011

Apres Moi le Deluge — why the news coverage of the flooding of Vicksburg is an exaggeration

See that hill that the Yankees are taking? That's where I live -- Vicksburg. Go Yanks!

I don’t mean to demean the troubles of the small number of families in the Vicksburg who have been flooded out of  their homes.  However, the national news coverage of my post-New-York home town of Vicksburg of late has worried a number of people I know.  They imagine me wading through muck trying to salvage my DVD player.    But the reason why Vicksburg was a crucial part of the Civil War was that it was placed on a high bluff ABOVE the Mississippi River.

If I watched Fox News, and I don’t, I might think I was gathering the animals two by two to repopulate the Earth after the water recedes.  CNN has filmed the train depot more than half underwater — and it is indeed more than half underwater right now.  However, what the news doesn’t show you is that the entire town is up a very tall,  steep hill from this place.  The illustration from the Civil War to the left shows the geography of  the town.  Where most of us live is where the flag is planted in the distance.  The casinos are at the riverbank — so is a defunct railway station that the town has been planning to make into a museum.  So are some vacant lots and a very few houses.

But the news media is making it look like the Johnstown Flood.  In fact, it is nothing of the kind.  Things are far worse in Memphis, in Louisiana, and in other places outside of town.  Not only are the Army Corps of Engineers working to keep the water back from the  casinos — the Army Corps of Engineers lives here — the Waterways Center of the Army Corps of Engineers is up here, and these engineers are defending their own houses from the deluge.  They couldn’t be more personally motivated to get it right, and they are truly doing their very best work despite very difficult circumstances.

We in Vicksburg are mostly doing alright.  My husband volunteered to help move the four families at our church that might have their houses flooded, but he has not been called off the bench because they have not been victims of any high waters.

Ironically, parts of the film O Brother, Where Art Thou? were filmed in Vicksburg, and that film climaxes with a large flood.  Admittedly, this narrative is not yet ended, but the water is supposed to crest in three days.   There are no rain storms in the forecast.  The media should cover the people who are really suffering.  Most of  them don’t live in this town.

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